by Narrelle M Harris
Sleep after rehearsals proved a challenge. Sal kept them awake again with his nightmares. He’d had them almost every night since they lost Alex and Kurt to the vampires. Since he’d had to finish the job on Alex, to keep his best friend dead.
Since he’d had to behead him. Cut out his dead heart. Stuff his mouth and heart cavity with garlic. Burn the body.
It was four days before Sal had even been able to sleep at all. He wasn’t convinced that the nightmares were better than the hallucinatory craziness of the severe insomnia, except that the hallucinations had seemed so real. At least he knew the nightmares were just nightmares.
So even when it made them fractious, nobody complained to Sal about the whimpering and the cries. They all politely pretended not to have noticed anything the next morning. Sal seemed to prefer it that way. Nobody really knew how to make him feel better, anyway. Everyone felt terrible. That was just that.
Breakfast – toast and butter cadged from the ‘take this leftover food’ shelf in the hostel’s communal kitchen – led to rehearsals. Laszlo was getting the hang of things, and Sal was more confident with Alex’s old part in the lead, but just as he was hitting his stride, he’d falter, stumble and end in a jarring mess of notes.
Steve called time out just before Sal began to smash his guitar to splinters.
“Gonna get some air,” said Steve, “You might want to go get your sticks now, Yuka. Then we better go check out the hotel’s set-up, see what we might need. Meet you there in a few hours. Then we’ll try rehearsing here again tonight,” and he stalked outside.
Once outside, he pulled his phone from his pocket and checked his messages.
Of course we will, said the email from his nephew Angus, Nothing could make us happier. We’ll sort out tickets and meet you and Kelly soon.
Well, that was something. Gretel would be cared for, just the way Alex and Kurt would have liked. And if Steve hadn’t told the rest of the band yet, well, it was partly that he didn’t want to say anything until it had all been confirmed. Yuka and Sal had made it perfectly clear from the start how they felt about Alex and Kurt becoming parents, and they’d turned out to be right, which didn’t make it easier. But that little girl was the closest Steve would ever get to grandkids, and he was going to do right by her, no matter what it cost him.
It was high time he retired, anyway. Sometimes he couldn’t believe he’d made it this far without being killed or losing a limb. He’d been with this band – under three names now – since he was fifteen years told. The idea that he might make it out alive had never occurred to him before Budapest.
Now, though. Now. He was starting to see the appeal in it. Sitting on a porch, in a rocking chair, singing to Gretel as she grew up. Dying twenty or thirty years hence in his own bed, of some nice old people’s condition, not bitten in half by a dragon (Anna, his first band leader) or poisoned by an enraged witch (Rodrigo, his second) or killed by vampires (his third, Alex, and Kurt).
Steve stabbed at the text pad on his phone, squinting at the letters, until he finally sent: Good. See you then.
That done, he jammed the phone in his pocket, hooked his thumbs in his belt, and ambled towards the centre of Melbourne to see what, if anything, was going down. All these years travelling the world, and he’d never made it to Australia before. It had to have more going for it than simply being a very long way away from a defeated nest of Hungarian vampires.
The stretch of road along which he walked wasn’t giving him much to go on, though. Perhaps its charms were more of the hidden type, Steve considered. Some cities were like that – and he’d seen enough of them – garden variety on the surface and all buried treasure once you started poking into the spaces in alleys and old buildings. Of course, those were the cities that frequently held nasty surprises. Made ‘em interesting, he supposed.
Today, Steve Borman was not in the mood for interesting. He was very much in the mood for garden variety.
His feet led him finally past an elegant Victorian era building, colonnade sheltering a café and the scent of coffee beans and toasted sandwiches. The building ended where a traffic-free plaza began, split in two by tram tracks down its middle. Steve paused, looking at the collection of tall posts bearing narrow flags advertising a recent art exhibition. At their feet was what looked like a giant, pink, narrow, naked backside. A few steps took him to the front of the thing, which showed it to actually be a giant marble coin purse.
Well, okay Melbourne, thought Steve, I kinda like your big pink ass-purse. What else you got for me?
That’s when he heard the music. Steve lifted his head and peered down the length of the plaza. Half way down, a small band was playing, and playing well. One of that little band was playing better than well. Even half a city block away, Steve could feel that special something humming through the notes.
Steve squared his shoulders and strode towards the sound.
The four-piece was set up in front of a department store. The lead vocalist was growling into a mic while to his right a drummer sat on a stool and thumped away at a djembe drum, slapping out a rhythm that the lead guitarist to the left of the singer matched. The singer was fine: not brilliant, but competent, and those two musicians were, well, fine. But Steve had heard from the other end of the street that it was the thrum and soul coming from the bass player that was keeping them together, lifting their game. It was the bass player’s low undercurrent keeping that sense of lurking danger in the song.
Turn to face the sun
Everything warm and light
But there’s something colder
at your shoulder
Behind you, you know
There is a shadow
A young man stood bent over his bass guitar, fingers arched and flying across the neck and the strings, his feet braced wide and steady. From the throbbing low notes to the counter-melody that wove through the higher register, that boy was the one weaving the players into a whole, keeping the drumbeat in line, keeping the lead guitar from wavering off into blurry fingering, tugging the singer back into key and rhythm. His was the power bringing out the inherent threat of the lyric and also keeping it at bay, a careful balance.
Keep your eyes on the light
Keep your back to the shadow,
dark as night
And maybe you won’t see it
it won’t see into you
Steve folded his arms and watched that young man, hardly more than a boy it seemed, though the world was increasingly peopled with just kids, he’d started to think lately. This kid was dark-skinned and dark-eyed, with strong and graceful hands, his focus entirely on his instrument. He seemed to be unaware that he was guiding the others to be better than they would have been alone.
Eclipses your better self
There’s strength in that darkness
When you need it
You’d better, you’d better
Hope to god you won’t need it
Steve Borman was fifty eight. He had been playing guitar since he was nine. He had been imbued with music and magic combined since he was fifteen. He could see power with his naked eye. And this boy? This boy had power, both musical and magical.
And it does not forget
And it will not forgive
Fight it, fight it|
For as long as you live
Steve waited until the band had finished their set and, while a flurry of onlookers went to buy a CD from the drummer, he sidled up to the bass player. The kid stood a little apart from the others, plucking at a string and listening to its vibration.
“Sounds in tune to me,” Steve said.
“Hmmm,” said the kid.
“Pitch perfect, in fact.”
“That is indeed a fact,” Steve said, smiling at the other’s dryness. “Though I guess that string gives you a bit of trouble, sometimes. Mine used to. Turned out to be the peg.” Steve forbore to mention that this was because the offending peg had been a last minute fix whittled out of a fingerbone found in a Dresden graveyard. Much too early for that much detail.
“Thanks for the tip.”
“Any time, kid.”
The kid looked up then. “I appreciate the advice and everything,” said the kid, “But I’m kind of busy.”
“I can see you’re plenty busy. You carry this band.”
That made the boy’s eyes flash. So: he knew it after all.
“Is there something you’re after?” asked the kid.
“Matter of fact, yes,” Steve said, “Do you have a passport?”
The kid laughed as though finally seeing the disappointing purpose of this conversation.
“Yeah, but you’ll never pass for me, so I’m not selling.”
Steve liked this kid. A lot. “No, seriously. I’ve got a feeling you’ll be going places soon.”
The kid gave him a sardonic look. “That’s a terrible pick-up line and dude, you look deadly, okay, but you’re not my type.”
Steve grinned at the boy, pleased at being thought ‘deadly’, even while suspecting it meant more like… wicked cool rather than actually deadly. He was certainly the latter when required.
“Ain’t like that at all, kid. This ain’t a proposition. Well,” he laughed, “It is, but not the one you think it is. I’m what you might call a talent scout. No, not like that.” Annoyance had crept into his tone.
The annoyance prompted a sudden laugh from the kid. “Hey, all right, calm down, mate.” The boy’s grin was infectious. “You’re not queer, fine.”
“Never said I wasn’t queer,” said Steve, “I said I wasn’t propositioning you in that manner.”
“So you are queer then?”
“You are missing the point of this conversation.”
The kid, still with a grin on his face, folded his arms across the top of his guitar. “And the point is?”
Steve leaned towards the boy, closing the gap between them, hazel eyes fixed on brown.
“Have you ever,” said Steve, low and earnest, “Made things change with your music.”
The boy’s grin faltered.
Steve continued, voice too soft for the nearby crowd or the other band members to hear. “Have you ever played to the dry ground and made it rain? Sung a baby to sleep and the whole house went quiet? Played so angry you broke every glass in your house, or cracked a paving stone outside? You ever made a fire with your fingers on those strings, kid?”
The boy’s whole body was tense as an overwound spring. His jaw clenched shut. His eyes were wide.
“What do you know about that?” His voice was a whisper forced out like a confession over vocal cords tight with fear.
“I know all there is to know about it,” Steve promised him, “Including what it’s for.”
The boy swallowed so hard the sound of it swelled in the air between them.
“Come with me when you’re done here,” Steve said, “I’ll tell you a story.”
The kid looked like he was going to refuse, but Steve had been in his place before. When he was fifteen and wandering the streets, playing for dimes and quarters and hoping he could find a safe place to sleep without having to fight to keep his guitar, the only thing left of his old life, and knowing he’d have to fight anyway. This kid didn’t look so homeless, but right now he looked exactly as lost as Steve had been when Anna had found him. When she had heard him play, and promised him a story that would explain it all.
“Fine,” said the boy suddenly, “Fine. I’ll go with you and you can tell me a story. But that’s it. No promises from me.”
“Ain’t asked you for any yet,” said Steve.
“The name’s Stephen. Stephen Maclean,” said the kid.
“How about that,” said the Texan named Steve, and wondered if it was a sign.
That’s all for now, as I work with an agent to find a publisher for the book and the proposed series. Subscribe to the blog to keep track of what’s happening with the project!
(Please feel free to post your responses to the story here: thoughts, speculation, whatever strikes you, good or bad.)